Blisteringly hot hellwinds scraped across Ian MacKenzie’s flesh as he hoisted the great stone block into place. His muscles burned as he shoved it into position, and the manacle affixed to his ankle cut into his flesh. Why they made them wear these things, he had no idea. It wasn’t like the prisoners were going to flee.
A desert wasteland stretched out as far as he could see, burning sands surrounding the cathedral they built in hell. Certain death awaited them in the desert, which was saying something for an immortal. It was nearly impossible to destroy the body of one of their kind, but the hellish afterworld called Moloch could do it.
“It’s wrong.” The voice of the overseer boomed from behind him.
Rage burned in Ian’s chest, searing his ribs and lungs like hell’s fire. It was always wrong. The great stone walls of the partially constructed cathedral soared above him. He called it a cathedral, but he had no idea what it truly was. No one ever told the prisoners what they were building. But the labyrinthine structure was never up to the standards of the designers.
“Do it again.”
Ian ground his teeth and picked up the sledgehammer that he used so often it was driving him mad. He swung it at the stone wall, pain singing up his arms when the hammer connected with the stone. Something in his soul tore away as he destroyed the wall over which he’d toiled.
He kept up the motion until the voice of an overseer echoed across the red sands.
Thank gods. His muscles burned, his skin stung from the hellwinds, and his mind felt near-fractured from the constant repetitive toil of build, destroy, build, destroy. One of the three overseers unlocked the chain at his ankle and Ian followed the other prisoners, a dozen of them in total, to the departure area. It was nothing more than a patch of sand guarded by two of the overseers. He joined the rest of the men in line to be transported back to the prison.
When he reached the front of the line, the third overseer appeared out of the air. Ian didn’t bother to look at him as the cloaked man gripped his upper arm and aetherwalked him back to the Immortal University’s Prison for Magical Deviants in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Ian cursed the aether, that ephemeral substance that connected earth and the afterworlds, as the heavens and hells of all the true religions were called. Select Mytheans—supernatural individuals who lived secretly alongside humans—were able to travel through it. It allowed the overseers to transport him from the hellish prison to the even more hellish afterworld every day for his work shift.
As soon as he was shoved into his small stone cell back at the prison, his skin began to feel tight. The walls closed in on him immediately, as they always did.
Ever since he’d been thrown in here, life had alternated between the painful misery of toiling at the cathedral on Moloch and the claustrophobic hell of his cell. His mind felt like it was about to crack from the strain.
He scrubbed a hand over his face and grimaced at the grit. He felt like little more than an animal as he walked to the shower in the corner. It was no more than a hose over a drain, but it washed away the dirt carried by the hellwind.
He pulled on another pair of the ubiquitous black pants and sweater that he’d been wearing every day for nearly a century and settled onto his bunk to count the stones that made up the walls. And dream about the past.
Ian jerked when the door to his prison cell swung open. That was off-schedule. Nothing was ever off-schedule at the prison.
He surged to his feet and watched the burly prison warden escort a small figure into the cell.
His breath caught in his throat and his spine stiffened.
It was a woman.
Every muscle in his body tightened. He hadn’t seen a woman in nearly a hundred years. And this one was pretty.
Her shining brown hair was pulled back from her face, and she wore trousers. And a tight leather jacket. Gods. Times had changed.
He dragged a hand over his mouth as his gaze traced from thighs to hips to breasts, devouring. The fabric clung to curves and muscles, so different from the gowns of the women he’d seen when he’d last been a free man.
An attractive woman used to make him stand up straighter, adjust his cravat. The vanity that he’d possessed before his interminable prison sentence didn’t stir. But the rest of him did. Made him want to kick the guard out the door and get to know her better.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” His eyes raced over her face when she stopped a few feet in front of him. Strong features and a determined gaze. She had an expression that looked like she’d roll over anyone who got in her way.
“Can we have some privacy?” she asked the warden.
The idiot in his pants twitched at that. He shifted so that it wasn’t evident.
“I’ll be just outside the door.” The guard leveled a warning glance at Ian. He left the door cracked behind him.
Her gaze met his. Steely eyes—both in color and hardness—searched his own.
It made him wonder what she saw. Once, he knew she would have seen someone stylish, wealthy, good with words. A man with a silver tongue who knew how to get what he wanted.
He didn’t see that man in the mirror anymore, and he had the feeling that, on the day he finally got out of this damned place, that man wouldn’t return.
No, she’d see a harder man, half animal by now. Shaped by his time in prison like a canyon carved out by a river. The qualities of that man, well, even he wasn’t familiar with them.
“I’m Fiona Blackwood.” Her accent was local like his, and he assumed she’d grown up in Edinburgh, too. Though the prison contained inmates and staff from all over the globe, her Scottish burr was distinct. She didn’t reach out to shake his hand.
It reminded him of what he’d become and that there was no reason to engage in the social pleasantries that were once second nature. “Ian MacKenzie.”
“You’re in here for blowing up the west wing of the Scottish Museum of Antiquities,” she said.
He shrugged. “Aye.”
Her jaw clenched. Apparently she didn’t like his blasé attitude about the catastrophic damage he and his partner Logan had caused while trying to rob the museum a hundred years ago. It should have been an ordinary job, but their magic had gotten out of hand.
“That’s it? You doona feel terrible that you destroyed ten thousand years of history? Bronze age swords and jewelry? Viking hoards and medieval art?” she demanded.
“Aye, of course. I wanted to sell them. Blowing them up and getting locked in here wasn’t part of the plan.”
She huffed a disgusted sigh. Didn’t like that, did she?
“What do you know about the enchantments at the museum?” she asked.
Everything. But he didn’t give anyone anything. The habit had started early in his life, back when he hadn’t had anything to give. When he finally had, he couldn’t see the point. It was no way to survive. “And why would I give you that information?”
“I could get you out of here, if you’re interested.”
The muscles in his shoulders tightened. He tried to force them to relax, to hide the thrill her words elicited. He had so damn little power in this place already, he hated to give away any more by showing how much he wanted what she offered.
But it was foolish, wasn’t it? Of course he wanted out of this endless hell.
“Could you, now?” He tried to stifle the raw desire in his voice.
“Aye. If you help me get past the enchantments. You’re the only Mythean who can get through the museum, from what I hear.”
“And how did you hear that?” Only one person knew about that, and Ian had nearly given up hope that Logan would get him out of here.
“A thief that I’ve been looking for tipped me off that there’s something I want verra badly inside that museum.” Her voice shook, betraying the depth of her desire for whatever the museum kept from her. “And he said that you know how to get through the enchantments that protect the vault.”
Logan. Ian focused, straining not to reveal the thrill that ran through him. Was this the day Logan would finally get him out? Whatever the plan, he was in if it meant an escape. “Aye. I can get through the enchantments.”
“You’re sure?” She sounded doubtful.
“Of course. I put them there, did I no’?”
“Why the hell would you enchant a mortal museum? What the hell were you thinking?” Her voice gave away how incredibly stupid she thought he was. Mytheans were forbidden from revealing their existence to mortals. As long as a Mythean looked human, he could walk among mortals, interact with them—hell, even sleep with them. As long as he never let the mortals know that the things that went bump in the night were actually real.
Break that rule, and the Immortal University would come down on your head and toss you into this hell for as long as they saw fit. They took their job of protecting the secrecy of their kind seriously. Though many Mytheans possessed powers that mortals could only dream of, they were vastly outnumbered. If the witch hunts had taught Mytheans anything, it was that it was best not to spook the mortals.
He had most definitely spooked the mortals.
“What did you hope to gain by enchanting the museum exhibits?” she prodded.
Ian snapped out of the memory of arcs of magic shooting across Edinburgh’s night sky, billowing plumes of purple smoke blocking out the moon, and mortals running screaming through the streets. “Why do you care?”
“If I’m going to get you out of this hellhole, I want to know what landed you here in the first place. The only thing on record is that you blew up the museum and alerted dozens of mortals to the existence of magic. It was a shit show. The university had to wipe memories and put down the mortals who were too stubborn to forget what they saw. But you’ve never said why you blew it up in the first place, and I’m guessing it has to do with the enchantments that Logan told me about.”
No, he’d never said why the museum had blown up. The university hadn’t cared. All they’d cared about was the explosion and who was responsible. They’d thrown him in here and hadn’t looked back.
If it would help him get out of here, he’d tell her anything she wanted to know. “I made a living stealing artifacts. Mortal artifacts sell quite well on the black market. My preferred museum was the Scottish Museum of Antiquities. Eventually, other thieves decided it was prime hunting ground as well. I enchanted the museum exhibits to stop my competitors before they got to the best bits stored in the vault. The enchantments only activate in the presence of Mytheans. The museum blew up that night because other thieves tried to use counter-magic. Something went wrong.”
“So Logan was your partner?”
“Nay.” It was a lie, but no way in hell was he ratting out his friend. The night that the museum had blown up, Logan had managed to escape. Ian, knocked unconscious in the blast and buried under an enormous pile of rubble, had not. “What’s there that you want so bad?”
“The Book of Worlds. Mortals have it in the museum.”
Her jaw slackened. “How could you no' know about it?”
“Never had any reason to know about it.” He folded his arms over his chest. He hadn’t had the same education as most Mytheans growing up. It had bothered him once, but no longer. Prison had hardened that type of concern right out of him.
“Well, it’s the single most important book in the world. To Mytheans and to mortals, though they doona even know it exists. It’s a record of all the true religions.”
“Interesting, but what’s the big deal? Mortals would no' believe it anyway. They’re too stubborn.”
Though Mytheans were the creatures of myth made real by mortal belief, mortals had no idea. They still fought over the one true god or the one true afterlife. They’d never accept that mortal belief had birthed everything from the gods and mythic creatures like witches and demons to the afterworlds where mortals went after death. It’d be terrifying to realize, particularly since Mytheans now existed independent of mortal belief.
“In the back of the book is a covenant signed by all the gods—Greek, Norse, Hindu, Christian, all of them—promising no' to interfere on earth to gain more followers or more power. If it’s destroyed…” She gave him a loaded look.
“The gods would no longer be bound by their promise,” he said.
“Exactly. They could come to earth and wage divine war. No’ all pantheons are power hungry, but it’s in the nature of gods to seek worshippers. Many of the ancient gods’ followers are dead, and they miss the adulation. They’ll seek new ones, here on earth. And of course the mortals will fight amongst themselves to prove which god is best.”
He whistled low. So not only was the book real, it was important. Damned valuable, too. His fingertips tingled.
“Why is the book in the museum?” It hadn’t been there when he’d been a free man or he’d have stolen it.
“I doona know. And Logan will no’ tell me unless I get your help in retrieving it. He thinks my only way into the museum is with your help. I can get you out of here for the time it takes to retrieve the book. After that, depending on your behavior, the university will reopen your case and consider an early release.”
His fists clenched. “The university does no’ change its mind. I’m in here for another two centuries.”
“They might. And this is your only chance.” Her voice was hard, but desperation crept in at the edges.
She was lying about the university, and she wanted this. Very, very badly. Why, he wasn’t sure. But he was her only shot if she wanted to get past the enchantments he’d placed on the museum.
“Well?” she asked, a brow arched. “Are you going to help me?”
He nodded. No question—he’d take any opportunity to get out of here. He’d see what Logan had planned, and if that didn’t pan out he could just steal the book for himself and barter his release. Either way, freedom, that elusive dream that was once so far away, was too close now to prolong it with questions. Questions could wait. Everything could wait, until he was on the outside.
“Good.” She reached into the bag at her side and pulled out a circular piece of metal. She held it up. “You’ll have to wear this.”
Fuck. A gods-damned collar.
“It’s been spelled so that you canna get more than ten meters from me. You also will no’ be able to use your invisibility. That had to be added specially to the collar. But considering your talents, I think it’s worth it.”
An angry flush crept into his cheeks. Collared like a damned dog. Like a pet. That’d kill any chance he had of escaping. He realized that she was watching him with calm gray eyes, as if she knew how much this pissed him off.
“Will it negate my other powers?” he asked. He had a mixed bag of talents, courtesy of his Historius and Sylph parents. The Historius side allowed him to find ancient, valuable artifacts and work a little magic, while the Sylph side allowed him to become invisible even though he wasn’t a full-blooded air spirit.
“Your Historius talents will remain, but it will diminish your strength and speed a bit, so that you canna turn on me.” Her face hardened.
“Fine.” He jerked his head. Even without his Mythean strength, he was far stronger than a mortal. He was stepping into another prison, but at least this new one didn’t have four walls. It would make stealing the book more difficult, but he’d worry about the damned collar when he got out of here.
“Good.” She stepped toward him.
The clean scent of her—no perfumes or fragrant lotions—wrapped around him. Soap, her skin. Nothing more. When he’d lain in bed at night, alone, so fucking alone, he’d dreamed of all the things a woman could be. The shape, sound, smell of her—in his mind, it had always been sweet scents, flowers and perfume.
But this woman smelled of none of what he’d wanted for so long. Yet she had ensnared his mind all the same, lighting up long-neglected needs. She stood so close he imagined that he could feel the heat of her radiating against his arm. It made his skin prickle with awareness.
The guard stepped into the room. “Everything all right?”
“Fine.” Fiona pinned him with a steely gaze, trying to take control of the situation. To take control of him.
He held out a palm. “I can put it on.”
He didn’t want her to collar him.
“I have to do it. It’s part of the spell, so that it knows I’m the one it canna leave.”
He frowned, then jerked his head in assent, and she stepped closer. Effortlessly, she broke the collar in two and raised the halves of dull metal. Every muscle in his body tightened as her arms neared, anticipation and nerves burning through him. The reaction pissed him off.
There’d been a time when he’d been the one in control, able to move a woman with his charm. Make her melt, make her want, make her ache. No longer. Prison had taken his smoothness and turned it into jagged need.
She was so close it made his muscles tense up and his cock harden. Her gaze was riveted to his neck. He could feel the guard watching the strangely intimate moment as she clipped the two halves in place around his neck. Her fingers brushed against him, hot as a burn, and his nerves lit up all the way to his cock, like a live wire connected the halves. He sucked in a breath to get himself under control. The metal, only a centimeter in diameter, rested at the base of his throat, heavy and obnoxiously symbolic.
“Done,” she said. “Now me.”
His eyes snapped to hers. She handed him a smaller circle of metal. A bracelet.
Too bad. He wouldn’t mind collaring her.
He took it and she held out a wrist. “They’ll link us. If you exceed the ten meters’ distance, your body will freeze up.”
“Will yours?” Sounded like a dangerous damned device if they were in a bad way. He’d be trapped.
“Nay. And I’m the only one who can remove your collar.”
So she was the one he’d have to convince to remove it. He drew in a deep breath and broke the bracelet in two as he’d seen her do with the collar. Though it had looked like a solid circle of iron, it broke easily in two places. He raised the pieces to her wrist, both desperate to put the thing on as quickly as possible and to stroke the pale skin of her wrist.
He clipped it on her and stepped back, his eyes lingering on the circle of metal that linked her to him.
“Good. We’ll go.” She turned and headed for the door.
That was it? He was free to walk out? Just follow behind this no-nonsense woman and out into the sunlight?
Fine by him. He followed his savior out the door, his mind buzzing with the possibility of freedom.
Fiona, she’d said. Tough, and a little bit ruthless from the look in her steel-gray eyes. But damned if he didn’t like her. Hard not to—she was getting him out of this place.
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